You Are Elected President – Now What?

This post is not about the election. I promise. Instead, let’s think ahead to January and what the next President is going to do.

He or she will not have to worry about a lack of advice, whether it is for people to staff the Administration or the policy direction s/he should pursue. There are many groups focusing on providing transition advice, with some of the best coordinating their efforts to provide a cohesive set of recommendations. I have been involved with several of the organizations and had the honor of co-leading (with GSA’s Paul Tsagaroulis) the team that developed Human Capital transition recommendations for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) Presidential Transition Project. ACT-IAC is a non-profit educational organization established to create a more effective and innovative government. ACT-IAC provides a unique, objective, and trusted forum where government and industry executives work together to improve public services and agency operations through the use of technology.

act-iac-logoThe ACT-IAC Institute for Innovation has produced a report, Transforming Government Through Technology, to identify a number of steps the next Administration can take to use technology to deliver the quality of services the American people have become accustomed to getting from leading companies, such as Apple, Google, and Amazon. The introduction of the report says “Effective, innovative use of information technology has revolutionized private sector business models over the last 20 years. Not only have most business-to-business and business-to-consumer interactions moved online, but entire industries have been transformed through business model changes enabled by information technology. Government has largely failed to keep pace with industry’s business transformation and information technology revolution. Despite spending over $80 billion annually on information technology, most federal agencies have seen little change in how they perform their work or interact and transact with citizens, businesses, and other governments. Where change has happened, it has typically been the automation of current processes or providing information through websites. The lack of change is caused by federal laws, processes, and culture that inhibit or even penalize risk taking, change, and innovation.

The themes of this election year make it clear that voters believe government, and particularly its outcomes, must change. Accustomed to dealing with modern Internet-age companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google, customers that encounter old-school federal government processes are frequently left confused, frustrated, and angered. This reinforces citizen perceptions that government is ineffective and unable to address today’s societal needs.

What sort of dramatic steps will it take to get government to raise its level of capability and performance? This report lays out a strategy for change that encompasses the skills, practices, and culture that private sector companies have demonstrated are necessary for success. While many of the recommendations can be implemented by the new Administration immediately, as part of its overall management plan, others will require longer-term cooperation between the Congress, the Administration, and the private sector.

Technology solutions require people to make them happen. That is the reason ACT-IAC included a human capital section in the report. The government needs to rethink how it approaches its own workforce and how it incorporates industry support. Information technology is one of the areas where government uses a blended workforce of federal employees and contractors. That approach generally serves the government well, but there are many areas where improvements are needed. To make that happen, the report calls for a 4-point plan to:

  • Staff the Administration rapidly
  • Make better use of existing hiring processes now
  • Embrace the industry employee base as a critical talent asset, and
  • Initiate a long-term comprehensive civil service reform initiative

GAO’s 2015 High Risk Report states “Mission-critical skills gaps in such occupations as cybersecurity and acquisition pose a high-risk to the nation: whether within specific federal agencies or across the federal workforce, they impede federal agencies from cost-effectively serving the public and achieving results.” Those gaps are growing as the workforce ages and government continues to fall short on recruiting younger talent. In fact, only 43% of feds believe their agencies can recruit the talent they need for mission-critical occupations (MCOs). The problem with recruiting younger workers is particularly acute. The number of under-30 federal workers dropped from 234K in 2009 to 162K in 2016. The problem is even worse in the IT workforce, where 50% are over age 50 and only 3.4% are under age 30.

Staffing the Administration rapidly is a a critical issue to which the Partnership for Public Service has devoted considerable attention. Their work on the issue has been so thorough that the ACT-IAC report recommends adopting all of their recommendations, including filling the top 100 positions soon after inauguration, and an additional 300 more by the congressional recess in August.

Existing hiring processes will be the means by which the government fills its vacancies for at least the next year or two. The ACT-IAC report recommends several steps the Administration can take get immediate improvements. They include:

  • Move vacant positions in the hardest to fill MCOs from the competitive civil service to the excepted service
  • Use existing critical position pay, special salary rates and recruiting/retention allowances to enable the government to compete for in-demand talent
  • Designate agencies as “Recruiting Managers” for key MCOs

Industry and grantee talent is a crucial segment of today’s technology workforce. Most agencies use a mix of their own employees, contractors and grantees to deliver IT services and tools. Yet, few agencies manage those assets as a single workforce. Agencies that do workforce planning, for example, typically focus only on their own employees. Planning for contract workers or grantees is typically left to the program managers or acquisition professionals. Because the work is delivered by a blended workforce, it requires a similar approach to planning.

Comprehensive civil service reform is necessary to bring government talent management into the 21st century. Even if the Administration fully embraces the first three recommendations, the government is still left with mid-20th century civil service laws that were designed for a mostly clerical workforce that we no longer have.  The ACT-IAC report recommends that the next President President create a Commission on Public Service, with experts from government, industry, and academia, to design a comprehensive, budget-neutral approach to civil service reform that includes:

  • A modern, flexible process for job classification process that reduces the current 400+ job classifications by at least 75% and supports significant delayering of the bureaucracy
  • Market-based pay that allows the government to compete for and retain talent
  • Performance incentives for individual and organizational excellence
  • Streamlined hiring practices that preserve merit as the cornerstone of public service and recognize the highly mobile nature of post-baby boom generations
  • A performance culture that uses outcome-based measures to support reward systems
  • Accountability measures to ensure poor performance and misconduct are addressed
  • An approach to leadership that holds supervisors and managers accountable for employee engagement and organizational performance
  • An effective process to allow government and industry to exchange talent; and
  • A reimagined 21st century Senior Executive Service that includes greater accountability, a peer review process for adverse actions (much like the US armed forces processes for general/flag officers), and a performance-based pay process that directly links executive pay with agency outcomes.

There is much more detail, along with the ACT-IAC recommendations in other areas, in the full report. I encourage anyone interested in transition to take a look.

The change of Administrations always offers an opportunity for the federal government to do a bit of a reset. What does not reset is the federal workforce that carries out presidential programs. Every Administration learns, sometimes far too late, that the federal workforce has many talented people who can be tremendous assets. If the next President recognizes that on day one, and adopts this set of recommendations, s/he will have a much greater likelihood of making his/her policy objectives happen.



icf_logo_color        napa-logo      pps-logo

Where are the Carrots in the VA Accountability Bill?

My last post addressed how the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 (passed the House of Representatives September 14, 201, but not yet approved by the Senate) would affect most employees. This post addresses how the bill would affect Senior Executives and some ways the bill could be improved by the Senate.

The major provisions that affect executives are:

  • Reduction of annuity for removed employees. This provision allows the Secretary to reduce the annuity of an executive who is removed because of misconduct or performance if the executive is convicted of “a felony that influenced the individual’s performance while employed in the senior executive position.”
  • Reduction of annuity for retired employee. This differs from the first provision in that it covers executives who retire before action is taken to remove them. It also requires that the executive be convicted of a crime before the reduction can take place.
  • Decisions regarding whether an annuity will be reduced are final and not subject to review by any department or agency or any court.
  • No right to appeal removals and downgrades to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
  • Creation of a Senior Executive Disciplinary Appeals Board. The Board would be 3 VA employees selected by the Secretary. It would have 21 days to render a decision or the removal would become permanent. If the Secretary does not agree with the board’s decision, he/she could overrule it. The burden of proof for the agency is reduced to “substantial evidence” and the bill requires that the decision be upheld if it is “within the tolerable bounds of reasonableness.”
  • Limitation on awards and bonuses. The bill provides that “during each of fiscal years 2017 through 2021, no award or bonus may be paid to any employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs who is a member of the Senior Executive Service.

The first provisions regarding retirement and convictions for felonies are similar in some respects to the way military officer retirement is handled. Officers who retire above the rank of Warrant Officer retire “in the highest grade satisfactorily served, not necessarily the grade held the day before placement on the retired list.” For example, a Major General who retires after engaging in misconduct may be retired at the rank of Brigadier General (or an even lower rank) if the service determines the officer did not serve satisfactorily in the higher ranks. The provision for SES retirement in this bill is far more limited and requires that the executive be convicted of a felony. It is difficult to make a good case that an executive with a felony conviction during his/her service should receive retirement credit for it. The lack of access to the courts for review of the decision is more troubling, but the number of cases where these provisions will apply are miniscule.

The next provisions do away with access to MSPB and require appeals to go to an internal Senior Executive Disciplinary Appeals Board. There are several troubling aspects of these provisions. First, the Board is internal to the agency and appointed by the Secretary. Second, there does not appear to be any restriction on the board being made up entirely of political appointees. Third, the Secretary who decides to take the action and appoints the Board would have the authority to overrule the Board’s decision if he/she does not agree with it. It is hard to imagine how a review board of political appointees who are at-will employees and appointed by the Secretary will come to a decision to overrule the Secretary. It is even harder to imagine how they would reach that conclusion when they know the Secretary can overrule their decision anyway. If the intent is to use a board other than MSPB that has more in-depth knowledge of the Department, I would be far more comfortable with a board appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the President. If there is a need for the Secretary to be able to overrule decisions in cases where the board’s decision is egregiously wrong (and I could imagine that happening), there should be standards in the law that the Secretary would need to meet to overturn the board decision.

It is clear from observing recent VA Secretaries that they, like the vast majority of VA employees, are interested in doing what is right for Veterans. The type of circular process this bill envisions, where the Secretary makes the decision to remove someone, the Secretary appoints the board that hears their appeal, and the Secretary can overturn the board’s decision, puts the Secretary in a position where the focus moves away from the executive accused of misconduct or poor performance and toward the Secretary. I agree that senior executives should be held to the highest standards of conduct and performance and should suffer the consequences when they do not. I do not believe this appeal process is a good way to make that happen.

The last provision of the bill that is critically important is the 5-year ban on awards and bonuses for VA senior executives. The ban does not apply just to executives who are failing due to performance or misconduct. It applies to every SES member in the entire department. I know from discussions with people who work at VA that there are a lot of people in the department who care deeply about serving our Veterans. They are doing everything they can to improve services. Banning bonuses for senior executives can harm the department and the Veterans it serves in two ways. First, it may drive the best executives away. The SES pay and bonus process was designed to make a portion of executive pay at-risk, based on the executive’s performance. That is the reason bonuses can be large (by government standards) and the reason for Presidential Rank Awards. Telling those executives that, even if they do outstanding work and lead superb teams that meet every objective, they cannot get a bonus for 5 years is likely to demoralize them and cause them to go elsewhere. It may also drive high performing GS-15s who want to be SES away from the VA. Second, it will make it much harder for the department to recruit new executives whether from outside or from within the ranks of the tens of thousands of high performing employees of the department. Other agencies are already experiencing difficulties on recruiting senior executives. The pay difference between an SES and a GS-15 is not enough for many folks to want to take the risk of moving into the SES. Add to that a provision that bonuses and awards are forbidden regardless of how well you do the job, and it makes getting top talent almost impossible.

If the intent is to improve services to Veterans, I would prefer to see changes to the bill to recognize high performance. I understand that some people view internal performance review boards as being too lenient on senior executives. OK, why not use an external citizen board, appointed by the Secretary, that reviews and approves bonuses and awards based on demonstrated excellence? A similar process is used by OPM to review Presidential Rank Award nominations. Having served on several of those boards, I can attest to the fact that they are not pushovers and do not hesitate to reject weak nominations. We could also allow the board to review standards for awards and reject the standards if they are too lenient.

We should also put some money behind bonuses for VA high performers (not just senior executives), to increase performance. Federal executives (and every federal worker) should be held to high standards. We should expect good performance and not allow substandard performance or misconduct. So this bill and many others provide the sticks that might help the VA and other agencies deal with problem employees. But – where are the carrots? A carrot-and-stick approach works only when we reward the people who are making things happen. As I said in my last post, there are 368,000 people working in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Most of them do good work. Many of them do great work, and some do lousy work. By all means, deal with the people who do lousy work. Our Veterans deserve a VA that is outstanding and those folks are not helping us get there. But remember that excellence is delivered by the excellent and good employees and those folks deserve some attention too.
my-affiliations-2icf_logo_color        napa-logo      pps-logo

%d bloggers like this: